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If you like John Lewis's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Daniel Inouye,
Frank M. Johnson,
James Earl Jones,
B.B. King,
Coretta Scott King,
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John Lewis can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring John Lewis in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Social Advocacy

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John Lewis
John Lewis
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John Lewis Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Champion of Civil Rights

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  John Lewis

Did your belief in nonviolence ever waiver? Did you ever question the method?

John Lewis: As a participant, and even today, I have never ever questioned the method, never questioned this idea, this concept of passive resistance. I believe in nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I believe that this idea is one of those immutable principles that is nonnegotiable if you're going to create a world community at peace with itself. You have to accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I thought I was going to die a few times. On the Freedom Rides in the year 1961, when I was beaten at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, I thought I was going to die. On March 7th, 1965, when I was hit in the head with a night stick by a State Trooper at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of nonviolence.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Or want to retaliate?

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis: No, I cannot and will not retaliate. We grew to respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. When we were harassed by Sheriff Clark in Selma or Bull Connor in Birmingham, when I was being beaten by an angry mob in Montgomery, you try to put yourself in the place of the people that are abusing you, and see that person as a human being, and try to do what you can to win that person over, to change that person. In a sense we all were victims, victims of a system.

Let me ask about March 7th, known as Bloody Sunday. What was going through your mind when you saw the array of State Troopers on horseback, and you and Hosea Williams at the front of that line walked into that?

John Lewis: As we started walking across the Alabama River, across the Edmund Pettus bridge, I really thought that we would be arrested and taken to jail. I was prepared to be arrested, and I was wearing a backpack, and in this backpack I had two books, an apple, an orange, toothbrush and toothpaste. I thought we were going to go to jail. I wanted to have something to read, something to eat, and since I was going to be in jail with my friends, colleagues and neighbors, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth. And we get to the high point, highest point on that bridge. Down below we saw the Alabama State Troopers, the Sheriff's Deputies, members of Sheriff Clark's posse, and when Major John Claude said, "This is an unlawful march." I think he said, "I am Major John Claude of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church." And I think Hosea Williams said, "Major, will you give us a moment to pray?" And before we could even get word back, he said, "Troopers advance." I knew then that we were going to be beaten. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks and they came towards us beating us with night sticks, pushing us, trampling us with horses, and releasing the tear gas. I became very concerned about the other people in the march, because I thought I was going to die. I just sort of said to myself, "This is it. This is the end of the road for me. I'm going to die right here on this bridge." And to this day, 39 years later, I don't know how I made it back across the bridge, through the streets of Selma, back to that little church that we left from, but I do recall being back at that church that Sunday afternoon.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

John Lewis Interview Photo

It was Brown Chapel AME Church. When we got back, the church was full to capacity. Several hundred people on the outside were trying to get in to protest what had happened. Someone asked me to say something to the audience, and I stood up and said, "I don't understand it. President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote." The next thing I knew I had been admitted to the Good Samaritan hospital in Selma.

Was that a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement?

John Lewis: I think what happened in Selma was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and probably was one of the finest hours in the movement. Because of what happened in Selma, I mean people saw the film footage of what happened on television that Sunday night, that Monday morning. There was a sense of righteous indignation. People didn't like it. The American people didn't like it. There were demonstrations in almost every major city in America, on almost every major college campus, at the White House, the Department of Justice, at American Embassies abroad. I remember Dr. King coming to visit me that Monday morning in the hospital and he said, "John, don't worry. We'll make it from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act will be passed." And he told me that he was issuing a call for religious leaders to come to Selma the next day, and the next day, that Tuesday, March 9th, more than a thousand ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns came to Selma and marched across the bridge to the point where we had been beaten two days earlier.

President Johnson called Governor Wallace to come to the White House to try to get assurance from him that he would be able to protect us if we decided to march again. Wallace could not assure the President. Lyndon Johnson was so moved that he had to do something. The American people were saying, "You must act." The Congress was saying, "You must do something." So he went on television, and he said...

"At times history and fate meet at a single place in man's unending search for freedom. So it was more than a century ago at Lexington and at Concord. So it was at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama." He condemned the violence in Selma, and he mentioned the fact that one good man, a man of God, was killed. Reverend James Reed, a white minister from Boston, had participated in a march on March 9th. And then the night of March 9th he went out to try to get something to eat with two or three other white ministers, and they were jumped and beaten by members of the Klan, and a day or so later he died at a local hospital in Birmingham. President Johnson recognized that, but before he closed that speech and introduced the Voting Rights Act he said, "We shall overcome." He said it more than once, "And we shall overcome." And he became the first President to use the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement in a major speech, and Dr. King was so moved he started crying, and we all cried a little when we heard Lyndon Johnson say, "And we shall overcome."

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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This page last revised on Mar 18, 2015 00:24 EST
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